Jennifer Talltree, a private investigator and Osage shaman-in-training, must call on both her magical powers and her detective skills when the theft of native American artifacts and the desecration of burial grounds rouse vengeful spirits. 50,000 first printing.
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Mercedes Lackey is the author of the bestselling Valdemar series, and the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, and, also with James Mallory, the Enduring Flame trilogy (The Phoenix Unchained, The Phoenix Endangered, and The Phoenix Transformed). She has written many other books, including Trio of Sorcery, Phoenix and Ashes, Sacred Ground, The Firebird, The Fairy Godmother, and Alta. Lackey is the co-author, with Andre Norton, of the Halfblood Chronicles, including Elvenborn. Mercedes Lackey was born in Chicago and graduated from Purdue University. She has worked as an artist's model, a computer programmer, and for American Airlines, and has written lyrics and recorded more than fifty songs. She lives in Oklahoma.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She poured a dipperful of water over the hot rocks in the heaterbox, and steam hissed up in sudden clouds, saturating the dimly lit sauna with moisture. The smoke of cedar and sweetgrass joined the steam, the humidity making both scents so vivid she tasted them in the back of her throat.
She sat down cross-legged on the wooden floor, boards that had been sanded as smooth as satin underneath her bare thighs. It didn't matter to her--or more importantly, to Grandfather--that this sweatlodge was really a commercially made portable sauna; that the rocks were heated by electricity and not in a fire; that the sweetgrass and cedar smoke were from incense bought at an esoteric bookstore in Tulsa. Or even that the sweatlodge as a place for meditation was more common among the Lakotah Sioux than the Osage; Grandfather had borrowed judiciously from other nations to remake the ways of the Little Old Men into something that worked again. The destination is what matters, he had told her a thousand times, and the path you take to get there. Not whether your ritual clothing is of tradecloth or buckskin, the water you drink from a stream or a spring-or even the kitchen tap. Sometimes ancient ways are not particularly wise, just old.
So they had this contrivance of the I'n-Shta-Heh, the "Heavy Eyebrows," installed in what had been the useless half-bath at the back of the house she and Grandfather shared. Most of the time it served as nothing more esoteric than anyone else's sauna, useful for aching muscles and staving off colds.
Sometimes it served purposes the I'n-Shta-Heh who built it would never have dreamed of. She closed her eyes, sweat salty on her upper lip, and stripped off the layers of her working self the way she had stripped the layers of her working clothing before she had taken her ritual bath and entered the now-sanctified wooden box. There were layers to who she was, like an onion, each layer both hiding the one beneath and keeping the one beneath from reaching outward.
Jennifer Talldeer. The face that the white world saw; ironic name for a woman a shade less than five feet in height. Doubly ironic considering how tall Osage men and women tended to be. Your mother's genes, was what her father said, when she asked him why she was the runt of the litter. That sneaky Cherokee blood. You know how they are. With no acrimony; no one in her family believed in refighting old battles. Her mother had just smiled.
Private Investigator, degree in criminology. Nice little house, nice little neighborhood, nice little mortgage, in one of the older parts of Tulsa. Nice old neighbors, who thought it charming of her to take in her aged and "infirm" (ha!) grandfather. That persona was the first to go, washed away in the steam.
Next, the woman who danced at the powwows, engaged in her little hobby of rescuing sacred objects from profane hands; another mask, just one a little closer to the truth, a little deeper to the bone. A woman who bore two names, one for the earth-people and one for the sky-people, although it was the latter she used. Hu-lah-to-me, Good Eagle Woman, daughter of Hu-lah-shu-tsy, Red Eagle. Good Eagle was not registered on either side of her family, Osage or Cherokee, but she and her family had more right to call themselves Native American than plenty who were registered and could speak of no more than a single grandparent of the full blood.
Fly away, Good Eagle. Gone; there wasn't much there anyway. Jennifer was what she did; Good Eagle was simply an intermediary between what she did and what she was.Last layer; what she was.
The third Osage name, a name that was learned and not given. Kestrel-Hunts- Alone.
Not a "normal" name for a woman.
Kestrel, pupil of a man with three names, her grandfather. His Heavy Eyebrows name, Frank Talldeer. His second, quite out of keeping with the Tzi-Sho, and a name embodying contradiction, Ka-ha-ska, White Crow. And his third--embodying even more contradiction than the first--Ka-ha-me-o-pah, Mooncrow; crows do not fly at night, nor are they associated with the moon, and those birds that do fly at night are generally the enemies of crows. The power of the Osage centered on the sun, not the moon; a man of power should have had a sun-name, like her father's. Contradiction piled on contradiction....
Shamanic apprentice to her grandfather, her spirit-name was taken from her spirit-animal, student as she was in the teaching of one of the Little Old Men of the Ni-U-Ko'n-Ska, the Children of the Middle Waters, whom the Heavy Eyebrows and Long Knives called "Osage." By birth and by spirit, she was gentle Tzi-Sho gens, the peacemakers, and here lay the irony, for not only was Mooncrow teaching her the peaceful medicine of Tzi-Sho, he was teaching her the medicine of the warriors, the Earth People, the Hunkah. And, as if that were not enough, he was teaching her the special medicines reserved for each of the clans! For that, she had thought, one had to be a Medicine Chief and not simply a shaman. Grandfather had never once come out and said that he was--
Then again, maybe he was simply living up to his contrary nature. He wasn't registered, either; nor were any of his forefathers. And he wouldn't use any of the Peyote rituals that had crept into, and indeed supplanted, most of the Osage ways; they were like kudzu or mimosa in the red-clay soil--not native, but once there, impossible to get rid of. He had certainly been teaching her things no tradition she knew of called for; he had adopted the Lakotah sacred pipe; and he was passing to her the medicines of virtually every Osage clan from Bear to Otter to Eagle, things she thought were kept as clan secrets.
That would be like him; the man who cheerfully used an electric sauna for a sweatlodge, who prepared sacred tobacco in a fruit-dryer bought at an ex-hippie's yard sale, who purchased his cornmeal for ceremonies at the big chaingrocery--
Who taught a woman Warrior's Medicine.
Kestrel realized where her thoughts were leading her, and resolutely brought her concentration back where it belonged. This Seeking was not about Mooncrow, but about herself. About her progress, or rather, lack of progress.
There was something holding her back, and she did not know what it was. Mooncrow would not tell her, saying only that if there really was something holding up her progress, she already knew what it was; typical contrary reasoning. She wondered where he'd gotten that particular mind-set; it wasn't typical for Osage Medicine. And it certainly made life difficult for his student. She could have used a teacher less like Coyote and Crow, and more like Buffalo and Eagle. Simpler instruction, fewer tricks; more straightforward direction, fewer riddles.
He's doing it to me again. Making her annoyed, taking her thoughts off the path. To be honest, making her angry. He had chosen to teach her, and how he taught her was his choice, not hers. It was her duty, her privilege, to learn. If she were failing somewhere, it was up to her to find out where and why, and correct it. Only then would she earn her medicine-pipe.
She let her temper cool, poured another dipperful of water on the rocks, saw that the cedar still burned, and started over, determined that Mooncrow and his contrary ways would not distract her again. He was "just doing that," like the buffalo, who did what they pleased, when and where they pleased, and if it seemed out-of-season, who would dare to stop them? Steam wreathed her, heat and semidarkness held her, and this time she slipped away from herself to fly among the other worlds, among the other Peoples of Water, Earth, and Sky.
It was in the Sky she found herself, a sky blue and cloudless to the east, dark and cloudy to the west, with Grandfather Sun on her back and wings, and the heat of thermals off the prairie below bearing her up. She flew above the meeting of forest and prairie, with the oaks and redbud, cottonwood and willow stretching into the east, and an endless sea of tallgrass to the west.
If she had worn human shape, there would have been the hot, dry scent of grasses carried by the thermal she rode, but raptors have no sense of smell, and all that came to her through her nares was the heavy, drowsy heat.
She flew in the shape of her Spirit-Animal, the kestrel of her name. A good shape, one suited to swift travel, although if she had hopped like Toad or crawled like Turtle, the results would have been the same--those she needed to have counsel of would have found her, if she had not been able to travel swiftly enough to find them. That was the way it was; the Wah-K'on-Tah saw to it, in whatever ways it suited the Great Mystery to work. If, however, she chose to perch and wait--she would never find those wise counselors. And it wasn't a good idea to tempt other, smaller mysteries into action against her by being lazy.
So she flew, low over tallgrass prairie, until movement below sent her up to hover as only kestrel, of all the falcons, could.
Rabbit looked up at her from the shadows at the base of the grass, his nose twitching with amusement. "Come down, little sister," he offered. "Come and tell me what you seek, out of your world and in mine."
She stooped and landed beside him, claws closing on grass stems as if they were a mouse. "An answer," she said, folding her wings with a careful flip to align the feathers properly, for a raptor's life depends on her feathers. "What is it that keeps me unworthy to become a pipebearer? Where have I failed?"
"I am not the one to ask," said Rabbit. His pink nose quivered as he tested the air, constantly, and his gray-brown coat blended perfectly with the dead grass of last year. "You know what my counsel is; silence and care, and always vigilance. I do not think that will help you much. But perhaps our cousin in the grasses there can answer you."
He pointed with his quivering pink nose at a spiderweb strung between three tall grass stems and the outstretched branch of a blackberry bush. Spider watched her from the center of her web, swaying with the breeze; a large black and tan orb-spider, nearly the size of her kestrel-head. Rabbit accepted her word of thanks and hopped away. In a moment he had vanished among the grasses.
She repeated her question to Spider, who thought it over for a moment or two, as the breeze swayed her web and flies buzzed tantalizingly near. "You must know that I am going to counsel patience," she said, "for that is my way. All things come to my web, eventually, and break their necks therein."
Kestrel bobbed her head, though she did not feel particularly
patient. "That is true," she replied. "But it is more than lack of patience--I must be unready, somehow. There is something I have not done properly."
"If you feel that strongly, then you are unready," Spider replied,
agreeing with her. "I see that you do have great patience--except, perhaps, with your Grandfather. But he is a capricious Little Old Man, and difficult, and his tricks do not make you laugh as they did when you were a child. I think perhaps I cannot see what it is that makes you unready. Why not ask one with sharper eyes than mine?"
She wondered for a moment if there was a hidden message in that little speech about her Grandfather, but if there was, she couldn't see it. Spider pointed to the blue sky above with one of her forelegs, and Kestrel's sharp eyes spotted the tiny dot that could only be Prairie Falcon soaring high in a
thermal. Her feathers slicked down to her body in reflex, for the prairie falcon of the plains of the outer world would quite happily make a meal of a kestrel.
For that matter, if she let fear overcome her, Prairie Falcon of the inner world would happily make a meal of Kestrel.
But that was a lesson she had learned long ago, and the tiny atavistic fears of the form she wore were things she had overcome many times. She thanked Spider, who turned her interest back to a dewdrop threatening her web, and launched herself into the air.
* * *
She returned to the steam-laden sauna with no answers, only a load of defeat, and the surety that she was not only unready, she was unworthy. Not good enough.
And she still didn't know why.
Kestrel became Good Eagle Woman; Good Eagle Woman assumed the mask of Jennifer. She opened her eyes and stood carefully, feeling for the switch that turned the heaterbox off, then finding the door latch and pushing it open, releasing the steam into the air-conditioned cool of the hall.
There were old bathrobes hanging beside the sauna; she wrapped herself in one and headed for the shower.
As the hot water sheeted down her body, she tried to let it clear her spirit of depression. It didn't succeed, not entirely.
She should have been ready by now; she should have been good enough. She had mastered skills just as difficult in a shorter time frame--to save money, she'd gotten her four year degree in three years, while continuing to study the shamanic traditions. Not good enough; that hung in her chest, a weight on her soul and heart, pulling her to the ground when she wanted to fly. It was time--it was more than time. She had spent years in this apprenticeship; she should have been ready by now. She should have been good enough.
How long had she been doing this, anyway?
Since I was just a kid, she thought, trying to remember the very first time her grandfather had singled her out for teaching. Then it came to her--
* * *
"You see Rabbit?" Granpa asked her, coming up behind her on the white-painted back porch, so quietly he had made no sound. But she had known he was there. She always knew where he was; he was a Presence to the heart, like a little sun, a glow, always shining with energy and cheer.
She had been sitting on the porch for a while, just watching the birds at the feeder, when the little rabbit had crept cautiously up to help himself to some of the stale bread her mother put out for the crows and grackles. He couldn't have been more than two months old; no longer dependent on his mother, but scarcely half the size of a grown rabbit. He never stopped watching all around while he nibbled; never stopped swiveling his ears in every direction, alert for danger. His fur looked very soft, softer than her cat's, and her fingers itched to stroke him. But she knew that if she moved, he would be off in a moment.
She nodded, not speaking. Granpa wouldn't frighten the rabbit no matter what he did or said, she knew that, but she also knew she would. It was just a fact, like the green grass. Granpa could walk right up to a wild deer and touch it. She wouldn't be able to get within a mile of one.
"No, not just this rabbit--" Granpa persisted, "Rabbit."
She had not puzzled at the statement, as virtually any adult and most children would have. She heard what he meant, not what he said, and looked deeper--
That was when the half-grown cottontail became Rabbit, grew to adult-human size and more, sat up, and looked at her.
"Hello, little sister," he said politely. "Thank your mother for her bread, but ask her if she would put some of the kitchen greens out here for us as we...
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